Saturday, February 11, 2012

Out of Oz 
by Gregory Maguire
Harper Collins, 563 pages.

!!  This review contains spoilers  !!

Although one has to credit Gregory Maguire for his imagination, devotion and skill - his brains, heart and courage, as it were - it would be a tough job to recommend Out of Oz to anyone but the most devoted fans. The book is the final volume of a massive reworking of the Oz mythology dubbed The Wicked Years, a long, complicated saga about war, politics and love that have earned Maguire comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan and other creators of the sprawling fantasia. But Out of Oz, more than any of the three books that came before it, seems to strain under Maguire's literary efforts. Everything is a little too labored, especially the narrative, which is a meandering timeline of events that spans the years but leaves the characters themselves lost in its wake.

For the uninitiated, the success of The Wicked Years has everything to do with the musical Wicked, based on the first book and now a Broadway sensation (expect the film in 2014). To make a very long story as short as Maguire himself should have made it, Oz is a country mired in political chaos. The Wicked Witch of the West has chosen the wrong side and little Dorothy is fooled into committing a political assassination. The books that follow deal with the aftermath and various power grabs that hurl the country into a Civil War. There are several trips down the Yellow Brick Road, a female heroine with a new breed of followers and a climax in the Emerald City. The famous characters - the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Toto - all make their appearance but only the Cowardly Lion gets to have the spotlight. Maguire has a lot of fun referencing the pantheon of Oz characters first introduced by Oz's creator, Frank L. Baum. True Oz devotees will have fun finding Maguire's version of less famous Oz characters like the Glass Cat, Mombi, the Patchwork Girl and the Hungry Tiger.

 Maguire also pokes fun at Oz's musical legacy: Dorothy returns, but everytime she tries to sing, people cover their ears (if you last long enough, you can watch for references to Over the Rainbow, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead and other famous songs from the MGM movie.) It's all very sly and clever, which is probably the best compliment that can be given to the series as a whole. The prose oozes with wit and every character comes equipped with sass, sarcasm and a snappy remark. This does make it hard to differentiate their voices - all the characters speak more or less the same - but it definitely makes for lively reading. 

In the previous three volumes (Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men), Maguire wisely focused his sprawling story around a single character (the Wicked Witch of West, her son Liir and the Cowardly Lion, respectively). But in Out of Oz, Maguire leaps from character to character in a spirited attempt to tie up the loose ends. In the process, he struggles to allow our sympathies to fall on any one person. The heroine of the book is ostensibly Rain, granddaughter to the Wicked Witch, but she doesn't reach centre stage until somewhere around the two hundredth page. Even then the focus of narrative continues to switch, allowing Maguire to include an overly long section in which Dorothy is put on trial for her political crimes.

Dorothy's whole presence feels extraneous and there's the sense that Maguire felt compelled to bring her back, since Baum himself brought her back on numerous occasions. Her trial is more or less another version of Alice's trial in Alice in Wonderland, in which Lewis Caroll gleefully mocked the gravity of judicial procedures. But satire was Carroll's whole purpose and there's little of that here; a smart editor would have told Maguire to cut the whole section, but Maguire's probably sold enough books that he can now tell smart editors where to take their opinions.

Sadly, the book's desperate need of an edit is the largest problem with Out of Oz and the thing that makes it such an unfortunate finale. Maguire gets too distracted by secondary characters and tertiary narratives. He clearly wants Rain to be our heroine but each time we abandon her or her perspective, the novel loses its arc. Moreso, it causes no end of frustration. We become engaged in characters who suddenly disappear. Don't get too involved with the good witch Glinda, who we follow for the first hundred pages or so; she vanishes completely, as does her foil, the Machiavellian General Cherrystone. A lot of time is spent developing their rapport and why? In the long run, none of it has much to do with anything.

!!  This paragraph contains spoilers  !!

There are hints of what the book could have been when Rain is deposited in a boarding school (she's being hidden from the law). Here, she becomes the most affecting and the most interesting, probably because Maguire had no choice but to keep the narrative focused squarely on her. Springing into adolescence, she becomes enamored with a boy named Tip, whose fate is only obvious if you've read The Marvelous Land of Oz (Book 2 of Baum's original series). (Last chance! Spoiler Alert Ahead)  Tips fate ultimately allows Maguire to touch on the themes of gender and sexuality which have been prevalent throughout the series. But he never allows himself time to develop the issue: by the time it appears, the book is 500 pages old and there isn't a lot of time for Rain and Tip to challenge (or even discuss) the social consequences of their relationship.
The need to keep the narrative moving towards a suitable end ultimately makes Out of Oz the least satisfying of all the books in the series. Still, when taken as a whole, The Wicked Years remains a fascinating literary accomplishment. Oz scholars will delight in Maguire's interpretation, not only of the mythology itself, but its inherent themes. Those who have stuck with the series for sixteen years will probably be glad they at least got some sort of conclusion and some clever master's student can now include the series in a term paper on Fantasy Cycles at the Turn of the Century, putting Maguire alongside Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling.

It may seem disingenuous to compare Maguire to the Greek dramatists of old. But they, like him, infused popular stories with their own interpretations. Whatever the fate of The Wicked Years or your opinions of the books themselves, Maguire has added to a long tradition and leaves a legacy of his wild, erratic and sometimes haunting imagination.

No comments:

Post a Comment